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Ontario Exploring Culturally and Linguistically Sensitive COVID-19 Communications

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

As fall creeps towards winter, the risk of COVID -19 overwhelming our healthcare system and forcing another public lockdown grows higher. We know the province is investing in more testing, more assessment centers, more medical and personal protective equipment, but the most important actions that Ontarians can take today are to follow the recommended public health measures to limit the spread of the virus.

These are, of course, basic measures like frequent hand washing and surface cleaning, maintaining social distance, wearing masks, being mindful of our own health and if we suspect we may have caught anything, doing a self-assessment and then following appropriate next steps.

If you are on certain social media channels, you have probably seen countless variants of these messages. You might even have downloaded the federal COVID Alert App. With these insights and resources, you are better positioned to make an informed decision to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community.

What if you aren't on these channels, though, or the information

isn't presented to you in a way you can understand? There are many Ontarians with limited proficiency in English or French, and some who can't speak either language at all, primarily women and seniors.

While most newcomers to Canada pick up a functional knowledge of one of our two official languages, there's a difference between being able to order a meal at a restaurant or give directions on the street and understanding complex and changing medical protocols.

We also have a tendency to favor information sources that connect with us on some level to those that don't. When government information is not being provided in the first language of many Ontarians, they will either be less likely to get that message, or perhaps more likely to get information from other sources - not all of which might be accurate or locally relevant.

This is why it is so important that, given the diverse linguistic reality in Ontario, our government makes a point in meeting people where they are, and communicating with them using channels they are familiar with and in language they understand.

The cost of translating documents, providing interpretation or multi-lingual resources, as our friends at Refugee613 have done with their COVID Alert videos, is far less than that of avoidable illness, hospitalization, and community spread of the virus.

The government's actions in Peel Region show that they understand the importance of language services in tackling the spread of COVID-19. It's important to note, however, that the challenges we're seeing with this pandemic are not unique. Every day, countless Ontarians with limited proficiency in English and French face barriers to public services and even a high quality of life.

We are grateful for the steps the government is taking to ensure these Ontarians aren't left behind, and are looking forward to speaking with MPPs at Language Advocacy Day on February 4th to discuss some of the other challenges and opportunities the province is facing where public service access through translation and interpretation are concerned.

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